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Embracing Bugpunk: A Little Science, a Lot of Magic; Stir Until Frothy

First, thanks to Charlie for the invite. Very stoked to be stopping by. It's been a whirlwind month of posts, celebrating the paperback release of my novel, God's War, in the UK (all three books, including Infidel and Rapture, are already out in the US). Very pleased to be finishing up my last two posts here at Charlie's place. Now, onto the good stuff. - kh

Stepping outside a bar in Durban, South Africa. It's hot; the kind of wet heat that clings to you so fiercely it feels like you're draped in a sweater. My friend points to a cloud of insects gathering under the street light, a humming swarm of winged visitors.

"Cockroaches," he says.

"But... they're flying."

"We have cockroaches that fly here," he says.

I stare back up at the swarm. Flying cockroaches, to me, were like something out of a bad dream, some loose worldbuilding tidbit that I'd come up with after a couple late nights trying to figure out how I could swap out giant cats for horses and put shapeshifters in a science fiction story without bothering to figure out where all the mass went.

Insects pervaded my entire life when I lived in Durban. I remember walking past a house covered from roof to foundation with plastic sheeting, getting pumped full of poison. The whole house, wrapped in a tarp and fumigated - just like that. No big deal. There were insects of every type, many of which I had no name for. I assumed, after a while, that every insect I encountered was just some kind of cockroach. I'd wake up in the morning and see one on my pillow. My books got tunneled through by wood boring beetles. A nest of... something... lived under my tub. Every time I ran the water they boiled out onto the bathroom floor. I called them baby cockroaches. It was just easier.

Those who've grown up in tropical or sub-tropical climates might find this level of friendly insect life mundane, but as someone who'd grown up in a temperate zone, the number insects trying to crowd me out of my everyday life was unsettling. It didn't help that the owners of the building I lived in were corrupt. The water was turned off several times when they didn't pay the bill, and in the year and a half I lived there, an exterminator only came by once.

I started to dream of bugs.

People ask all the time where writers' ideas come from, and of course the real answer is there's no one place. What we write about is pure filtered experiences - what we read, what we watch, and the lives we live - all shaken down a sluice and carefully panned for the choicest bits.

When I left Durban, the bugs came with me (perhaps not only metaphorically, but I try not to think about that). Sometimes when an idea takes hold of you, it insists on being seen through.

My preference for the fantastic in my fiction has always leaned more toward the unexplained - whether the work has spaceships or magic or some blurry combination of both. I don't need to know how everything works. In fact, I'd prefer not to. I want to figure that part out myself. I like to hold onto the sense of awe and wonder for as long as possible. Because once you pull back the curtain on the wizard and see it's just a plump little man spinning stories, it loses some of the fun.

So when I returned to the States and started looking at forms of magic I hadn't seen in fiction before - "magic" that I wanted to base in some kind of hazy, rule-based logic - I thought immediately of the insects. I started doing research, and found interesting instances of hornets used to sniff out explosives (and drugs, and all manner of other things). My setting featured a long, grueling war of attrition on a world with few large mammals and certain limitations on hard metals, and using insects to sniff out explosives instead of dogs seemed like a very useful potential tool. Now I just needed to figure out what sorts of people trained them. And what else they could train or manipulate insects to do.

Remote-controlled beetles aren't exactly far-fetched, so I knew I needed to go beyond that. One of the challenges of writing very far-future science fiction (or science fantasy, in my case) has, for me, been thinking far enough ahead that what you put on the page isn't obsolete by the time the book is published. I needed to fudge it. I needed to push it more toward the magic end, because it's the magic end that goes far enough out for me to feel safe in slapping it down, these days.

Insects have been used to inspire all sorts of technology, but what if the insects themselves were the technology? What if they had handlers, magicians, who gave them instructions on what to make and build, what tasks to perform, using pheromones, somehow? I needed an insect-based technology that just worked - without explaining so much it took away the wonder.

So I developed practitioners in the bug arts the way I would any other type of technology, where different people specialize in manipulating different types of insects. Very skilled general practitioners - who could use bugs to do anything from heal a grievous wound to deliver an instant message - were magicians. Those who primarily specialized in insect/pheromone based communications were com-techs. Then there were organic technicians and tissue mechanics, who worked on hybrid machines that had bug-driven organic parts supplemented with more rare and expensive components made from hard metals.

Once I developed the core idea - that the technology powering this world was insect-based - I had to implement it, and I did that by reimaging the way people lived and worked from the ground up. I wanted to capture that uneasy truce between people and insects I felt in Durban. It needed to feel completely natural that people were eating insects, using them as currency, and shooing giant, dog-sized beetles out of the trash bins every night. Insects needed to pervade every part of their lives. Lacking a robust population of mammals and reptiles, insects in this world took their place as pets, on the menu, and in the streets.

It led to passages like this, where a character pops the hood of her bakkie (a type of vehicle):

The bakkie's front end hissed open. Waves of yeasty steam rolled off the innards. Nyx wiped the moisture from her face and peered into the guts of the bakkie. The bug cistern was covered in a thin film of organic tissue, healthy and functioning, best Nyx could tell by the color. The hoses were in worse shape--semi-organic, just like the cistern, but patched and replaced in at least a half-dozen places she could see without bringing in a speculum. In places, the healthy amber tissue had blistered and turned black. She was no bug-blessed magician--not even a standard tissue mechanic--but she knew how to find a leak and patch it up with organic salve. Every woman worth her weight in blood knew how to do that.

And some everyday life that looks like this:

They drove past women and girls walking along the highway carrying baskets on their heads and huge nets over their shoulders. Bugs were popular trade with the magicians in Faleen. Professional creepers caught up to three kilos a day--striped chafers, locusts, tumblebugs, spider wasps, dragonflies, pselaphid beetles, fungus weevils--and headed to the magicians' gym to trade them in for opium, new kidneys, good lungs, maybe a scraping or two to take off the cancers.

When it was all over, and my protagonist took her last drink, I closed the book on the bugs for a while. I could only take so many flying cockroaches, and I suspect that's true of readers, too. But when people ask me how to build really different worlds, how to do something that hasn't been seen a lot, I challenge them to take a look at the wealth of their own experiences - whether that's a life lived through travel, or experiences gleaned from the page.

The most rewarding work I've done has been pulling up some of the darkest, most uncomfortable experiences I've had and transforming them into something magical or, alternately, terribly mundane. It's taking the world and turning it slant. Skewing the mirror, just a bit. Stepping a few inches to the left, when the world hasn't really changed, but your perspective is transformed.



In India, the bugs are not so prevalent (In most places, at least) but in India there are these van-der-Waals ("Weak Atomic Force") utilising reptiles, that eat the bugs. If one does lose its' grip on the ceiling (Happens if the plaster or paint is flaky) & drops into your soup, be nice to it, wipe it down, put it on the nearest wall, & let if go.
Of course there are other animals that eat the bugs in India, some of which are not so nice - as the Tale of Rikki-tikki-Tavi relates.
"The size, shape & demeanour of an animated bog-brush" is a description I've heard of a Mongoose on the hunt ....

P.S. Some smuggled geckoes were found at one of the London airports, a year or two back. They are now living, apparently quite happily, in the Tropical House at RBG Kew.


Ok, I'm "shooting from the hip" a bit here (book ordered on a recommendation from Charlie but not out in the UK yet).
I think what you're describing is a cross between biotech and nanotech, and maybe doesn't actually need "magic" to make it work?


Nanotech might as well stand in for "magic" the way it's used in fiction nowadays. Clarke's law and all that


I guess the southern half of the US isn't a temperate climate. 😄

Here in NC I've frequently seen them (cockroaches) at 3cm or more. In Florida people claim they grow large enough to elbow aside small pets at feeding time.

And they ALL fly. And yes it is unnerving.

I am curious to read more of your book.


I guess the southern half of the US isn't a temperate climate

'temperate /adj/: a climate where aircon is a luxury rather than a necessity'


I spent some vacations in Florida as a kid. I do have some fire ants in the book, as a homage (I grew up in Washington State).


I don't think it necessarily "needs" to be magic, no, but it should *feel* that way, like the Force. Once Lucas tries to start making "the Force" science-fictional with talk of midi-chlorians, it loses a lot of its wonder.

I did do a lot of research into nanotech, and had originally decided the magicians were descendants of terraformers, and the bugs were mutated versions of the creatures they created and controlled to help transform the world into something half-habitable. But I figured all that was such a long time before the present day in the book that it was highly unlikely any of the characters would wax on about it.


Thanks for that, so at least partly a "forgotten tech" that still works then? I can think of at least 2 other examples of these, but they're both pretty well known, one in particular around these parts.


Yeah, the "forgotten tech" thing is not new by any means. Pern immediately comes to mind, on the fantasy side of spectrum.

Most fiction is about re-blending ideas; very few are totally original, especially if you read far back enough.


I was deliberately not naming names, but since we are, I also thought of OGH's "Merchant Princes" saga.

O/T, but my copy of God's War is now in the post.


I wonder what inspired Piers Anthony's "Of Man & Manta" based on funghi world? lol

As to midi-chlorians; hmm, agreed, sounds daft in this CSI World we now have, without masses of further exposition, which would never hold up over time - well, unless we are more naiive in 5-15 years' time than we do not think we are now!


The flying roaches and the omnipresent insects sound creepy, but I'm surprised by the idea that a house being tented and fumigated is surprising. Happens all the time here in San Diego (a hot climate but not tropically moist); there are commercial services listed online. I'd assumed that that was true pretty much everywhere. Are there places that don't have bugs, or that don't allow them to be poisoned?


Thanks! Haven't thought about roaches in years. I hates 'em.
I'm originally from Florida, and knew roaches flew, but never saw them doing it. If I had seen that it might have freaked me out more than the one that crawled across my bare foot when I was three.
We moved to north Virginia a few years later. Still had roaches, but not nearly as many and half the size, and they stayed near water rather than roving all over the house.
And now, in Colorado, thankfully none here (that I've seen).
I've got nothing against bugs, as long as they are outside, where they belong.

shapeshifters in a science fiction story without bothering to figure out where all the mass went

Glad I'm not the only who gets annoyed about that.


I live in Aberdeen, Scotland, and whole-house tented fumigation is unheard of. We also have no mosquitoes and I have never seen a cockroach outside a vivarium although apparently some hotels and restaurants have had infestations. We do get the occasional wasp late in summer.

Seagulls are the worst pest hereabouts. The odd urban fox.


I used to work in a research Lab in NW London. US-owned multinational.
One day, we decided to re-arrange the communal "office" where we had tea-breaks & where useful files were kept.
BUT ... when we moved a couple of filing-cabinets & the big flat (supposedly empty) large-area thin containers behind them - we discovered large numbers of US 'roaches.
We THINK we caught'em all - put 'em into a 2 litre beaker, added about 250 ml of "Pet Ether" - that did the trick. There were definitely US Crickets living in the basement, too.

WTG @ 14
But, if you live in that part of Scotlamd, you may have no mozzies, - you have something probably nastier.

The dreaded Culicoides impunctatus or Scottish MIDGE Millions of the whining little bloodsucking buggers


Tenting a house is an option but I've never actually seen it. North or south. My understanding it it's usually the option when you have an infestation that's in the structure, behind the walls, etc...

I've lived in KY, PA, CT, and NC. Plus visited a lot of other places. Bugs in the northern US tend to exist due to people food sources. As you move south bugs are all around and just treat people as a source of nicer food. Here in central NC roaches are all over. And they love to find a way into your house as it's a much nicer place to live than normal camping. I gave up the personal fight and just pay a pest control group to quarterly spray around the house. Now we only have to fight off the occasional roach or other large bug vs. the continuous fight we used to engage in.

If you really want bad bugs it's my understanding that areas near and south of the Arctic Circle have mosquitos and horse flies that can kill when they are out in strength in the short summer. Literally. Imagine a fly that's 2 or 3 cm long, and bites you to drink the blood. They range south deep into the US but not so many and not so big.


Now I think about it with less blood in my caffeine stream, the tenting is usually done when there's evidence of termites. For roaches, a technician brings in a canister of poison spray, or a container of poison bait, and two hours later you go back in, open the windows, and wait two more hours while the place airs out. Not nearly as drastic.

Blood drinking insects aren't that big a problem in San Diego, in my experience.


I was thinking that tenting was more for termites.
In later summers, my father would take my brother and me out to the movies, while bug-bombing the house. A double feature was usually long enough for it to have aired out. But then would have to go back and sweep up all the roach corpses. Always wondered how they all ended up on their backs, some sort of reflex I guess.


Ah, Giant bugs - I live in Jo'burg and am very familiar with Parktown Prawns!


The Giant Weta - up to 200mm long & massing 20-30g
HERE is an exceptionally large one !!
Or the Cave Weta
Can be recommended as well .....


Note for USians - A typical house in Scotland, unless built in the last 20 years or so, is made of clay bricks (not cinder block), granite or sandstone. Even if we had termites, don't they mostly live on cellulose rather than silica?


You can see "tented houses" if you stick on Breaking Bad... except they were doing otherwise inside those dwellings...

As to cockroaches - weirdly enough I do not care too much what Kenny and Kerry do in our house, as long as they don't turn it into a party, invite in all their extended family and take up residence in the caffeine maker. We used to have scores of them, but now only one or two about - in fact this number only climbs when #3 cat brings them in at night to play with (removes legs, swivels/spins = amusement) - the number dropped after we moved in after I placed "cockroach medicine" under the kitchen sink. This being a direct translation from Mandarin, so available in Chinese stores I suppose; costs next to nothing, looks like brown bread crumbs... (no idea why Kenny is immune, perhaps from not visiting the kitchen?)

As to the rest of small life, we have cicadas, crickets and small lizards sometimes (cats again - so much fun, as they wriggle, or squirm or jump...), but perhaps my favourite friend is Henry, a huntsman spider, perhaps known as a rain Spider in S.A. (presumably because of its predicting powers), whom chills out on the wall, moving about sometimes yet largely lazy and not prone to much action really - perhaps he eats all the other 6 legged flanimals?

I realise these things bother people, but largely I do not mind too much anymore. (Perhaps it would be different if a Brown snake stopped by, as it is actually dangerous, likewise the blacker & hairier spiders with proper venom, a la funnel variety.). These smaller less troublesome types (of life) do not fuss me, maybe because they all have names now (anthropomorphizing helps?), and it is intriguing to watch them go about and do whatever they do. Like, Kenny's entire existence seems to be moving up and down the window in the bathroom, occasionally visiting a hairbrush, and then returning to the netting up top. He does not appear to do much else!


that part of Scotlamd [sic]

That part being Aberdeen, the Granite City. I suspect that the robust North Sea weather is somewhat detrimental to the midge lifestyle. When I lived on the Scottish East Coast I never encountered one.

Midges like the sheltered peat bogs of the Highlands and Islands. That's a very different landscape from a sea port.


In principle they could live on the roof joists. But given a preference to living underground, commuting that vertical distance is probably beyond them.

I'd also suspect they don't like the climate in the British Isles.


Yes, there are no midges in Aberdeen either. Apart from two or three wasps a year the most annoying critters to show up in our home here are crane flies, called 'daddy-long-legs' here. Probably get more spiders than anything else - those I just catch and put out the door.


I was in your namesake city on Hong Kong Island a few months back, and was happy not to be encountering either midges or mozzies there either. I suspect a century earlier it would have been different.


Do they use baby elephant bugs as vacuum cleaners, pterodactyl bugs as phonographs? Does the bug turn to the camera and squawk "It's a living?"


Just saw that I left out a couple words in my comment @18 --meant to say 'my summer's in Florida'. Spent summers shvitzing in the south and the rest of the year in Virginia.

Termites are another bug I'm glad we don't seem to have in Colorado, though there is a type of beetle whose larva eat the roots of dead trees. That turned out to be the reason a large maple in our yard fell on the neighbors roof a few years ago. I dug out the powdery remains of the roots and found a dozen, or so, grubs about an inch and half long. Looked up what kind, but don't remember which now.

A note on edible bugs. Locusts, grasshoppers, and such are the only bugs that are considered kosher. I can only imagine that ancient farmers had their crops eaten and said "Hey, we gotta eat something."


I can only imagine that ancient farmers had their crops eaten and said "Hey, we gotta eat something."

Well, I guess that and also that they could see what those insects were eating, something not so easy for many or most other types. I assume any insect that itself ate meat or decaying matter would be automatically not kosher, and you'd not want to eat one that might eat such.


Okay, I shouldn't have said 'only'.
A quick look on Wikipedia doesn't help much.
But you're right, any insect that ate meat or dung, isn't going to be kosher --just as bottom feeding fish, and meat eating mammals aren't. Though ants and other leaf eaters aren't kosher. So, only those that eat crops were considered proper to eat, therefore it's a form of pest control?


Ants live in nests, and who knows what they do in there? And grubs that burrow can't be trusted either.

I'm a little surprised that caterpillars aren't permitted (or are they?), but perhaps their resemblance to many burrowing grubs makes it difficult to be sure.

(Disclaimer: no known Jewish ancestry, so don't even start to consider me any form of authority)


I'm certainly no authority either.
Another look at Wikipedia finds Kosher Locust
Only Locusts are considered kosher, though some translations say grasshoppers. Of course, part of the problem with translations is that they don't always know what the original Hebrew actually referred to, though it was clear in the time of the writers. As far as I know (or suspect) the religious excuse for them being permissible are their part in the 10 plagues.

Almost sorry I brought this up, but this is where my mind goes when it come to eating bugs, which I haven't knowingly done.


As to cockroaches - weirdly enough I do not care too much what Kenny and Kerry do in our house, as long as they don't turn it into a party, invite in all their extended family and take up residence in the caffeine maker.

Does knowing they like to enter via the waste vents and crawl through the, ah, interesting sludge to get into the house change your option on that?

When clearing a clogged sewage line you need to be ready for a swarm to emerge when you open things up.


Note for USians - A typical house in Scotland, unless built in the last 20 years or so, is made of clay bricks (not cinder block), granite or sandstone. Even if we had termites, don't they mostly live on cellulose rather than silica?

Even in the US termites are very climate dependent. When I lived in New England there just wasn't an issue. Here in North Carolina they are a problem but you just deal with it. Proper flashing on the foundation/wood interface and either a one time or annual treatment. With a warranty that covers any damage.

In Florida it's all out war. And many houses that appear to be wood or timber framed are really concrete block or poured concrete with a facade.


Does knowing they like to enter via the waste vents and crawl through the, ah, interesting sludge to get into the house change your option on that?

In decades past a lot more so; but ultimately there is not a lot you can do about life like them, and incidences of being harangued by humans are far higher sadly (less predictable/more disappointing), but poisoning them is frowned upon, even if they do feel it OK to spread bad memes! - They (the cockroaches) have been minimised with the "medicine" (蟑螂藥); but other than that they will tend to be here regardless (literally walking in from the garden beneath the door, or via a feline maw) in a climate like this, so I see no means to controlling it, which has led to not worrying about it - otherwise how sane/rational would it be?

When clearing a clogged sewage line you need to be ready for a swarm to emerge when you open things up. - ah, rental property... ;)

Now, if the chitin-embraced arthropods had surveillance attached to them, then yes, I would probably want to resist the agents of ASS-eo and murder with impunity... *chuckle* ~ hold on, there was a book similar to that recently; micro spies etc, who was that? - ah yes, the author whom writes "yoga bricks"!


I'm from Washington State. When we had bugs, it was usually fleas, and then we just let off "bug bombs" which were just these cans of poison you set off inside each room. No tenting.


Fleas live on/near blooded creatures. So they tend to be in the areas you are in.

Tenting is done to remove those creatures that hide out in attics, crawlspaces, behind walls, etc... Bug bombs don't deal with those spaces.


but poisoning them is frowned upon

So is Borax powder around my crawl space considered poisoning?


Minor nidpick, actually cladistics imply termites ARE cockroaches, since they are nested inside the latter by most analyses. Excluding termites from cockroaches makes the latter paraphyletic, something that is quite frowned upon in cladistics. Compare the fun with birds and dinosaur, err, non-avian dinosaurs.


Actually I'm not that surprised ants are not kosher, having spend quite some time in the Mediterranean (Italy and France, e.g. Western, but I guess Eastern is not that different), one of the first things you notice when coming about dead small animals like mice and birds are the ants. Plenty of them. Multiple roads of them between nest and carcass. Might be it's only certain species, but I guess it was not that important for men to notice the difference, for the selectivity of popular systematics, see some New Guinean languages, different words for every bird, including two closely related, very similar species only identified after the fact. One word for butterfly. So I'm not that surprised about ants not being eaten.

As for wasps, let's just say one of the funs of barbecue is the wasps going for the meat, and I'm not talking White Anglo-Saxon Protestants here, and I guess dead animals are not that different. And, well, I'd think twice about going for these buggers.

Bees are somewhat difficult to explain, they have little nasty food habits, though it might be possible to mistake them for wasps, that might seem somewhat improbable, OTOH, I have family members on the record for mistaking chilopods for cockroaches, so maybe guys who summarized insects with "creeping, flying animals" were not noting the difference. As for other reasons, again, you'd think twice about going for these buggers, though honey seems something of a human universal. Or it might be killing bees is not that smart when you want your plants fertilised and some honey next year. Whatever, according to the articles, funny thing is honey seems to be kosher.

As for other insects, I guess most of those are too small or too rare to care about. If we go for the Tanakh, though, we might argue insects are just not mentioned, since most translations I found of Leviticus 11,20 speak about animals with four legs and wings. Leviticus 11,42 prohibits eating animals with four or more legs, but this would mean only birds and bipedal mammals are allowed to be eaten, yes, likely one of these nice contradictions due to the Elohist and the Jahwist and the Priestly source and whoever putting all kinds of texts together. There might be other texts in the Tanakh about kosher animals, though I'm not aware of them.

As for the reason locusts are permitted, them being one of the 10 plagues seems somewhat debatable, since with the same logic some insects stinging for blood and frogs'd be kosher, too, yes, never use logic on secular and religious law. OTOH, it might just have been there was already an older tradition with eating locusts rationalised after the fact, or they looked just not that scary, since part of the dietary laws might also be with reactions of disgust.

Sorry for the goyim doing an interlope, no expert on this, just spending way too much time with things under stones an in old trees...


As for the reason locusts are permitted, them being one of the 10 plagues seems somewhat debatable

You may be being confused by the modern disease-based notion of plague. The Biblical plague of locusts is a problem because they eat all the vegetation in sight, thereby causing starvation, but nothing about that is worse than an sudden massive oversufficiency of goats.

However it turns out that locusts are actually cannibals. My guess is that that would have stopped them being kosher, even though they walk on four legs and have wings.


well, actually my problem with deducing the kosher status of locust from them being a plague is the other plagues included likewise population booms in frogs, mosquitos and horseflies, neither of which is considered kosher. of course, applying logic to religious laws is tricky business, and as already hinted at, i'm neither qualified by the necessary knowledge nor closely affiliated with the group concerned, so any ideas i have are of little concern to halachic practice.

as for the cannibalism, there are some nice articles on tetrapod zoology about herbivores misbehaving, looking for links is somewhat trick on a tablet, but googling for "chicken eating cow" should do the trick...


True, there's probably not much point in trying to make sense of religious laws. I haven't given the subject much though since my last comment on it, though I did try looking in the Encyclopedia Judaica and a couple other sources, and did not find any kind of reasoning for locust being kosher other than "the Torah says so."
Like you mention other bugs (and frogs) are part of the plagues and aren't permissible, so not a likely reason. My guess, still, is it being a possible pest control --fortunately one needed only once a decade?
Anyhow, obviously, just because they are kosher doesn't mean that anyone has a desire to eat them. Maybe if locusts had been explicitly not allowed they'd be considered a delicacy ('forbidden fruit' like pork)?


You might add quite some secular laws to the "probably not much point in trying to make sense". As already mentioned, my main impetus were some ideas I got from my holidays in Italy.

On another note, I guess we could use my brother as a model for Middle Eastern sensibilities; incidents, including the ones with the dog of a girlfriend omitted to protect the not so innocent, but he has a soft spot for grilled shrimps and like (he was one of the first to get a Hep vaccination, of course, though I was not implifying OCD is not somewhat adaptive). So if my brother was in the habit of codifying his ideas about proper things, I guess he'd institute some exception for certain crustaceae, like "but they have scales, look where their carapees join" etc.

Personally, I'm not that sure early iron age humans stand much of a chance mking much of an impression on locust populations by eating, as opposed to habitat degradation and like, but I think taking this as an answer to "they ate everything, what shall we eat" is possible. Though we might ask if Leviticus dietary laws were originally meant for the "common man" or just for the priests and like.

On another note, insects are said to be good protein sources, so it might seem a waste not to use at least some of them.

Last but not least, since insect cells are somewhat easier to grow than mammal ones, where do I have to apply for a kosher status of locust in-vitro meat? ;)



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This page contains a single entry by Kameron Hurley published on January 28, 2014 8:00 AM.

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